FORT WORTH – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: When you walk into the Wayne Thiebaud exhibit, the first painting you'll see is a still life of cakes. They're 17 of them. All on simple cake stands. Exhibition organizer Stephen Nash of San Francisco describes Thiebaud's technique as "gooey," with paint almost dripping off the canvas.
Stephen Nash, Chief Curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Well, he is like a pastry chef in a way where he's actually decorating the cakes and pies with frosting, so to speak.
Sprague: "Cakes" is among the dozens of still lifes that launched Thiebaud's career in the early 1960's. He took on such subjects as hot dogs and pies, the kinds of things you'd see in a typical American cafeteria. But unlike the work of his Pop Art contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol, Thiebaud's paintings don't have a sense of irony or mock the American consumer culture. Although Thiebaud has warned critics not to read too much symbolism into his paintings, he has also said they reflect his nostalgic boyhood memories.
Michael Auping, Chief Curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth: One of the things that I think makes Thiebaud unique, and that would probably kill any New York artist, is the degree of sentimentality that is in his work.
Sprague: Michael Auping is the chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Auping: But Thiebaud transforms that sentiment into something so visceral that - I mean, to love the object that you're painting and love the material that you're depicting the object with, which is this liquid color, is something you don't see in a lot of art today.
Sprague: Thiebaud still teaches art one day a week at the University of California - Davis. His commute takes him on a tour of Northern California, which has been the inspiration for his latest paintings: rich Sacramento River Valley landscapes and views of the undulating San Francisco streets. Again, Stephen Nash.
Nash: The cityscapes are a kind of signature image in a way where he takes this streetscape of San Francisco, which is quite miraculous anyway with all these very steep roads and buildings clinging to hillsides, and he exaggerates, he distorts that even more and makes them very imaginary in a sense. They're fantasies still as streetscapes but at the same time they're linked to reality.
Sprague: Still, the scenes are recognizable, which makes Thiebaud's paintings more accessible than many other modern art paintings, according to Randall Griffin, who teaches art history at Southern Methodist University.
Randall Griffin, Professor of Art History, Southern Methodist University: Any time you see an artist who is painting works decades ago whose images still stand up today and seem fresh and resonant and relevant to us, as Thiebaud's do, that's remarkable.
Sprague: Fort Worth is the second stop on Thiebaud's national retrospective tour. The exhibit will open in Washington D.C. and the Whitney Museum in New Work next year. "Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective" continues at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth until January 14th. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.